Posts by: Matin Durrani

Chocolate dynamics, recycling urine, the hipster-physicist look and more

Cocoa conch: a chocolate's distinctive flavour and texture comes from "cohching". (Courtesy: iStock/deyangeorgiev)

Cocoa conch: a chocolate’s distinctive flavour and texture comes from “conching”. (Courtesy: iStock/deyangeorgiev)

 

By Michael Banks, Tushna Commissariat and Matin Durrani

Chocolate, the food of the gods, is more popular now as a sweet treat than ever before. And while more and more people know their 70% cocoa from their truffles, “lecithin” still isn’t a word that pops up often. It is an ingredient that plays a key role in chocolate-making and other foods. But this fatty substance has long confounded food-scientists and confectioners alike – we don’t know how this ingredient works on a molecular level and confectioners have had to rely on observations and trial-and-error methods to perfect recipes.

Now, though, chocolatiers have had help from an unexpected field – that of molecular biology – to figure out chocolate “conching” – the part of the chocolate-making process where aromatic sensation, texture and “mouthfeel” are developed. In a special issue on “The Physics of Food” published in the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, Heiko Briesen and colleagues at Technische Universität München, Germany, use molecular dynamics to model and simulate how lecithin molecules, made from different sources, attach to the sugar surface in cocoa butter. “I’m quite confident molecular dynamics will strongly support food science in the future” says Briesen.

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Queer in STEM, an astronomy rumpus and the heat from a fan

(iStock/Rawpixel Ltd)

(iStock/Rawpixel Ltd)

By Matin Durrani

Our eyes were drawn this week to the results of the first national US survey of the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or asexual (LGBTQA) people working in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) subjects. Entitled Queer in STEM, the study was carried out by Jeremy Yoder, a plant-biology postdoc at the University of Minnesota, and Alison Mattheis who’s on the faculty at the College of Education at California State University Los Angeles.

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How to treat your inner geek

 

By Matin Durrani

The word “geek” used to be a bit of insult, but to be labelled a geek these days isn’t such a bad thing after all. I think a lot of that’s due to the sheer power and pervasiveness of smartphones, software and IT — in fact, the top definition of “geek” over at Urban Dictionary is “The people you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult.” I also reckon the huge popularity of TV’s The Big Bang Theory has played its part in the reversal of fortune of the word, with many of us following the stories of Sheldon, Leonard and their geeky physics pals.

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US scientists praise nuclear deal with Iran

Two hands, one with the US flag painted on it, the other teh IRanian flg

Can the US and Iran seal the deal? (Courtesy: iStockphoto/Kagenmi)

By Matin Durrani

Earlier this month my colleague Hamish Johnston published a blog post about the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, in which he reported on a piece by the science historian Alex Wellerstein about whether that first use of a nuclear weapon for non-testing purposes was justified.

It’s a hugely contentious issue – some say that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings brought to an end a conflict that might otherwise have dragged on much longer, while others claim that a detonation well away from built-up areas would have been a better deterrent. Either way, the Hiroshima anniversary served as a pertinent reminder of the long and controversial role that physicists have played in designing and creating nuclear weapons, from the Manhattan Project onswards.

However, there have been plenty of physicists who have opposed the development of nuclear arms, including the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which was founded in 1945 by Manhattan Project scientists who “could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work”. Another anti-nuclear group is the UK-based Scientists for Global Responsibility, whose executive director Stuart Parkinson is a physicist. Last week it published a report calling for the UK government not to replace its submarine-based Trident nuclear deterrent.

Now, a group of 29 leading US scientists and engineers, including six Nobel laureates, has written a two-page letter to US President Barack Obama backing the deal that the US – along with China, France, Germany, Russia and the UK – has struck with Iran to limit its development of nuclear weapons and permit inspections in return for a lifting of economic sanctions.

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The August 2015 issue of Physics World is now out

 

By Matin Durrani

Mention the two words “science policy” and most physicists’ eyes will probably glaze over. Most of us dream of discovering a new planet or finding the Higgs boson – not poring over budget spreadsheets, championing science to politicians or commenting on legislation.

But science policy is vital in today’s world, which depends hugely on scientific research and in the cover feature of the August issue of Physics World, which is now out, Len Fisher and John Tesh offer 12 practical tips for scientists who want their ideas incorporated into science policy. You’ll be intrigued by what the two authors have to say.

Elsewhere in the issue, as my colleague Tushna Commissariat explains in the video above, there’s a great feature based on an interview with the French physicist Hélène Langevin-Joliot – the granddaughter of Marie Curie. In the article, Langevin-Joliot explains what’s known as the “Curie complex” and gives her own tips for scientific success. Langevin-Joliot didn’t suffer from the complex herself, but she acknowledges that it is a big problem for others and, these days, spends her time actively promoting careers for women in science

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The July 2015 issue of Physics World is now out

By Matin Durrani

Sometimes, nature does something unexpected – something so rare, transient or remote that only a lucky few of us get to see it in our lifetimes. In the July issue of Physics World, we reveal the physics behind our pick of the weirdest natural phenomena on our planet, from dramatic rogue waves up to 30 m tall, to volcanic lightning that can be heard “whistling” from the other side of the world, and even giant stones that move while no-one is watching. We also tackle tidal bores on rivers and the odd “green flash” that is sometimes seen at sunset.

Plus, we’ve got six fabulous full-page images of a range of weird phenomena, including salt-flat mirrors, firenadoes, “ice towers”, beautifully coloured nacreous clouds, mysterious ice bubbles of gas trapped in columns, as well as my favourite – the delicately wonderful “frost flowers” seen very occasionally on plants.

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Taking a peek inside the UK’s National Graphene Institute

Photo of Tony Ling

Look, no dust – National Graphene Institute architect Tony Ling showing off the PVC blackboards (Courtesy: Physics World/James Dacey)

 

By Matin Durrani in Manchester

Do an Internet image search of the word “physicist” and you’ll come across countless pictures of physicists posing in front of blackboards covered with bewildering looking equations. That’s because blackboards are traditionally a common sight in physics labs and research centres – in fact, they’re everywhere at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, where my Physics World colleagues Hamish Johnston and Louise Mayor are right now.

But over at the UK’s new £61m National Graphene Insitute (NGI), which I toured earlier today, blackboards are very much verboten. It’s the chalk dust you see, which is a no-no for health-and-safety bosses at the University of Manchester, where the NGI is located. Incidentally, Manchester is also currently home to Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, who shared the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for isolating graphene for the first time.

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Physics World 2015 Focus on Optics & Photonics is out now

PWoptics2015-cover-500By Matin Durrani

With the 2015 International Year of Light now in full swing, it’s time to tuck into the latest focus issue of Physics World, which explores some of the latest research into optics and photonics.

The focus issue, which can be read here free of charge, kicks off by looking at the giant laser interferometers underpinning the latest searches for gravitational waves. We also report on recent efforts to use optical instead of radio waves for satellite communication and have an interview with Ian Walmsley from the University of Oxford about the vital role that optics and photonics play in the UK’s new £270m Quantum Technologies Programme.

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Getting into the mind of Maxwell

Malcolm Longair on the beauty of Maxwell's equations
Published 150 years ago, Maxwell's paper on electricity and magnetism remains hugely profound
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By Matin Durrani

In case you’ve forgotten – and shame on you if you have – 2015 has been designated the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL 2015).  There’s been loads going on all over the globe, which you can follow on the excellent IYL 2015 blog, and we at Physics World have been in on the act too don’t forget. Our March 2015 issue was devoted to light and we also produced a digital-only collection of our 10 best features on light, which you can read free here.

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The June 2015 issue of Physics World is now out

By Matin Durrani

For nearly three decades, physicists have been unable to answer a seemingly simple question: where does proton spin come from? Adding up the spins of the three quarks that make up the proton seems, in principle, straightforward, but physicists have been struggling with a strange problem: the sum of the spins of its three quarks is much less than the spin of the proton itself.

Cover of Physics World June 2015

Known as the “spin crisis”, the topic appears as the cover story of the June 2015 issue of Physics World, which is out now in print and digital formats. In the feature article, science writer Edwin Cartlidge examines the origins of the problem – and whether new experiments could mean we are about to solve it at last.

If you’re a member of the Institute of Physics (IOP), you can get immediate access to the feature with the digital edition of the magazine on your desktop via MyIOP.org or on any iOS or Android smartphone or tablet via the Physics World app, available from the App Store and Google Play. If you’re not yet in the IOP, you can join as an IOPimember for just £15, €20 or $25 a year to get full digital access to Physics World.

The issue also includes a great Lateral Thoughts article by Felix Flicker that’ll have you twisting and bending your arms as you try to follow what he’s on about.

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